Elihu Vedder, The Questioner of the Sphinx, 1863 (Listening to the Sphinx)

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Date: 1863
Technique: Oil on canvas, 92 x 107 cm

Vedder's most revealing painting of unrevealing oracles is The Questioner of the Sphinx, a work that drew on the popular fascination with with Egyptian monuments and archeology - an enchantment embodied in the Egyptian revival, which left its architectural mark across the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the early 1860s Vedder had to rely on books, prints, and museums for his orientalist images of Egyptian exoticism (including a major exhibition at the New-York Historical Society in 1861). He would later travel to Egypt and become all the more absorbed, like other American and European tourists, by the ''grandeur'' of the architecture and the ''silence'' of the desert, ''always the Desert - perhaps the best of all''. In the painting, the solitary wayfarer puts his ear to the stony lips of the Sphinx awaiting an oracular answer that does not come. Vedder underlined this unrequited listening by creating a second version of the same scene a decade later in which the wizened pilgrim has aged noticeably - as ih he has grown old in God-forsaken waiting.
Vedder's Sphinx like the stilled statue of Memnon, is mute and blank; no mysterious song, no esoteric utterance, is heard from the carved lips.


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